Future of Learning

For ed-tech success, why schools use technology is just as important as how

A California school group refined its goals before turning to an ed-tech company

Dr. Jaime Aquino, left, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction with Los Angeles Unified School District gives a”high five” to Hillcrest Elementary School teacher Rhonda Marie Smith on her new iPad as teachers attend a training class after being issued an Apple iPad as The Los Angeles Unified School District began to hand out the iPad’s to teachers from various schools in the district at Theodore Roosevelt High School in 2013.

Many public school districts don’t have the resources to partner with an education technology company to develop customized digital learning tools for their classrooms. But when it comes to selecting ed-tech products or figuring out how to use them in the classroom, they could still learn something from the successful partnership between Leadership Public Schools (LPS), a charter network that serves the San Francisco Bay area, and Gooru, an ed-tech nonprofit.

“Schools are often looking at instructional uses,” said Thomas Arnett, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and author of a paper chronicling the efforts of these two organizations to co-develop classroom technology to support personalized learning. “But they often miss the bigger picture: the incentive structures.”

In other words, why a school decides to start using digital learning tools —the value it hopes to add to the learning environment—is just as important as how those tools will be used for instruction in the classroom.

According to Arnett, teachers and administrators should start to address “why” they want to use technology in the classroom, by identifying a specific problem they hope to solve by using it.

“Often, they’re not clear about what the goal is and how they want to evaluate changes in student outcomes,” Arnett said.

For example, in early 2008, LPS noticed that students were falling behind in math. Meetings with alumni confirmed another weakness: even though students were graduating from high school and enrolling in college, many were dropping out because “LPS was not doing enough to help students develop critical non-cognitive skills—such as goal-setting, time management, organization, self-advocacy and perseverance—needed to succeed in college,” the paper said.

In order to target these deficiencies, LPS launched a new math course to help students who were performing below grade level get back on track. Math teachers also started changing their teaching style to give personalized instruction to students with different learning needs.

Related: Despite its high-tech profile, Summit charter network makes teachers, not computers, the heart of personalized learning

While effective, these methods were unsustainable, because teachers had to do much of the data tracking and analysis manually, according to the paper. LPS set out to develop a home-grown ed-tech tool to make this personalized learning system more efficient. The result was a tool called Learning Lists, which was prototyped by one of the school’s math teachers in 2013 using spreadsheet features on Google Sheets. Students found the instructional content online and worked at their own pace, and teachers could track students’ progress using individual student and class-wide dashboards.

Arnett also said that schools must be ready to foster a shift in classroom instruction and, on a larger scale, a change in school culture towards technology in the classroom.

This could mean providing additional training for teachers on the instructional use of digital learning tools—how they’re going to use technology. It could also mean guiding teachers in developing classroom management or culture-building skills, especially if technology will be used to support personalized learning methods that give students more autonomy.

Even though the use of Learning Lists produced positive results, inputting data and updating the system was still too labor-intensive and time-consuming for teachers, the paper said. Having already produced one education app called ExitTicket, which also helps students and teachers track achievement data and put together personalized lessons, LPS was familiar with what it takes to build a sophisticated ed-tech tool and knew they couldn’t improve the Leaning Lists system alone. They needed a partner who would not only provide the technical skills to help them upgrade Learning Lists, but would also be willing to help them design a product that matched their goals for student achievement. Gooru was a good fit because they were also committed to designing education products driven by specific instructional needs, not a one- size-fits-all approach.

“It’s not just about adopting the technology,” Arnett said. “There’s a whole host of teaching practices that go hand-in-hand with the technology.”

This story produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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Jamie Martines was a reporting intern covering blended learning. She earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2016,… See Archive

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